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Where the Wild Things Are Is A Beautiful Film I Wish I Could Care About

Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze
Written by Jonze and Dave Eggers based on the book by Maurice Sendak
Warner Bros., 2009

When I saw the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are, I was excited.  Spike Jonze is an imaginative filmmaker who gave us some of the very best music videos in the nineties, Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation.  This project took him nearly the whole decade to accomplish for various reasons, and it still looks dynamite.  It looked like beyond all odds, this movie was going to entertain young and old and be a new classic for this generation.  Unfortunately, I found myself underwhelmed.

The movies that I kept referring back to while watching this are The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal, those that I watched when I was a kid.  The Neverending Story, particularly, holds a great deal in common with Where the Wild Things Are in the idea that imagination is escape from the hardships of childhood, especially if you are a child who has lost a parent and are unaccepted by kids your age.  I love The Neverending Story because it sets up a quest where the hero is searching for something to put an end to the horrific Nothing, and he has a number of unique challenges along the way, but ultimately he needs help from the reader to finish his quest.  He becomes empowered by believing in his imagination.  Bastian could just close the book on Fantasia forever, but he’ll still be the same kid getting pushed around by bullies as he always has been.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max (Max Records) is a boy who has lost his father, his mother (Catherine Keener) is looking for new love (Mark Ruffalo), and his sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) has begun to notice boys and doesn’t have time for her little brother.  His attempts to gain their attention seem to be thwarted at every pass: too busy, too tired, not interested.  This neglect culminates just before dinner, where Max throws a tantrum and runs outside, mother frantically chasing after him.  She won’t catch him…he’s about to go on adventure, in a tiny boat, to a remote island…where there are a number of strange, scary, benevolent creatures.

These creatures are led by Carol (James Gandolfini), who is nothing but pure emotion.  Rounding out this crew are Alexander (Paul Dano), Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Ira (Forest Whitaker), Douglas (Chris Cooper), and The Bull (Michael Berry, Jr.).  The one who once was part of their group and barely shows her face anymore is KW (Lauren Ambrose), whom Carol seems most emotional about.  When Max enters their world, they want to eat him, but he claims he’s a king and knows all things, and the creatures have nothing to do but accept this as fact.  Max becomes their king.

So, Max’s idea for them is to play games.  After the first one, where everybody piles on top of each other, it looks like Max is a wise leader.  When Carol shows Max a model of a perfect world “where everything you want to happen, happens,” Max believes the real thing can be built…and people we don’t like will have their brains cut out as soon as they walk in!  Soon, there are disagreements about how the games are played and how the utopia will be created.  Many needs aren’t being met, arguments start flaring up, and everyone wonders if Max is a good king at all.

From the get-go, we know why the story progresses in this manner.  This is a child’s mind.  Ideas are brought up, then scrapped, or redefined, or modified.  The conflicts come up out of the subconscious.  Before Max enters this world, he tells his mom a story about a vampire who loses his teeth when biting tall buildings, and is unaccepted by his vampire friends when they find out he has no teeth anymore.  In one tiny story, we have the inner workings of an imaginative child who unknowingly enters a conflict that is near and dear to him: acceptance.

Thus, this is how the movie goes.  It’s a child’s mind.  If I was a parent listening to my kid invent such a world, I would be amazed at his imagination.  If I were a kid playing pretend with this kid, I would add to the story my own subconscious desires.  If I were a grown-up visiting this kid’s house one day and he started telling me a story off the top of his head, I would shine him on and possibly ask him what happens next and pretend to be interested, but get bored pretty quickly.  That’s exactly what I feel like watching this movie.  It’s a kid telling me a story that I respect for its imagination, but my tastes have changed over the years and I need a tangible, exciting conflict and a reasonable set of steps to resolve that conflict.  In Where the Wild Things Are, there is no conflict except what is imagined by the kid, usually some unreasonably emotional struggle that spoils all the fun.

Spike Jonze has made a movie where I respect everything in it but left feeling cold.  It’s a visually striking movie, and the performances are good, but I left wishing there could have been more substance.  As is, Where the Wild Things Are is a sort of disappointment.  I expected it to soar.

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